Christmas vacation has officially begun, so here in Australia that means a lot of sunbathing, gardening and catching up on my backlog of books. I read two this last week that left a huge mark on me, so I want to go a little more in-depth than my usual “just go read this” type recommendations.
The first one is Invisible Planets, an anthology of short stories from contemporary Chinese authors with translations provided by Ken Liu, whose own personal work I have been championing ever since I got my hands on the first Dandelion Dynasty book. He’s done an absolutely brilliant job here, providing not just readable translations but also context for the stories and information on the authors that helps fill in the gaps of cultural knowledge I might have as a western man approaching Chinese speculative fiction. There are essays in the back of the book explaining the evolution of SF/F in China as something considered infantile and useless, to something that you might be able to use to bait younger audiences into “real” science, to propaganda, to a true cultural phenomenon experiencing something of a renaissance right now. Stuff about how there is a generation right now that instinctively lashes out against CCP propaganda and is at war with the volatile nationalism that many politicians carefully stoke to remain in power.
But it would be completely unfair to these stories if you were to read them as commentaries on China. Instead, as Liu says in the introduction, you have to read them as commentaries on humanity, our place in the cosmos, and the way that technology has been integrated with everyday life at an exponential pace.
There’s some absolutely brilliant work in here, unlike anything I have ever read before, using story structures that are unfamiliar to me and keep me guessing. I love that and it’s what I crave in literature these days, what drives me outside of the mainstream and into whatever I can find from other cultures. There aren’t the traditional three-act plot skeletons in this book and that leaves me feeling cast into a strange landscape, in the best way.
I’ll give a brief, spoiler-free rundown of some of the stories that stood out to me. First off, Chen Qiufan does some of the best near-future cyberpunk I’ve read since I borrowed my dad’s copy of Neuromancer as a young teenager. It does for the modern day what classics like that and Snow Crash did for the 80s/90s. “The Year of the Rat” is one of the best, most subversive military thrillers I’ve read since The Forever War and the other stories he contributes are on the level of something like Blade Runner to me. After that you segue into the works of Xia Jia, probably my favorite author in the collection, who tells stories that feel like a combination of Neil Gaiman’s best work and Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story film that blew my mind clean out the back of my skull in the late 90s. Then you get Ma Boyong’s sole piece, which feels like it could be a commentary on Chinese internet censorship but has chilling repercussions when you consider how universal its themes are. Hao Jingfang is a close second to Xia Jia for me with some almost whimsical travelogues through the greater cosmos and then “Folding Beijing,” one of my favorite short stories I’ve read in years, following an illegal courier who lives in a near-future Beijing where the population has been divided into three sectors who take turns inhabiting the surface, with the city folding up underground and new people unfolding to the surface as each sector goes to sleep.
The last few stories I can’t really get into without spoiling them, but they are equally brilliant and imaginative to the extreme.
I truly cannot recommend this book enough. Doubly so because I want to see it succeed in the west to a level that more and more works like these get translated and released.
The other one I picked up is a serious change of pace, a historical text by the venerable Eric Cline called 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed. This is the kind of book that will somewhat ruin fiction for you, because you’ll never encounter fantasy on the scope of what actually happened. Entire cultures being swallowed up and leaving empty cities behind, languages lost to the dust of time, and a series of catastrophes on a scale that the next generation of civilizations could not even comprehend. This was the collapse that led directly to the Atlantis myths of the classical era, because the scholars and philosophers of that time could only come up with ideas like the sea swallowing an advanced civilization to explain the devastation that they discovered and the mangled framework of the people who had come before them. It makes the Fall of Rome look minor in comparison.
In college, when I was dipping my toes into the Late Bronze Age Collapse – as it was then labeled – I found that the general description was lacking. Sea marauders came, there was some sickness, and everything kind of got wiped out over a few years. That doesn’t begin to describe what happened. This was the entire Mediterranean region with some of the most advanced cultures on the planet all falling like dominoes in under a generation. The Mycenaean kingdoms collapsing alone would have been staggering, but then you get into the Egyptians, the Hittites, the people of Mesopotamia, these people who were the apex of mankind up until that point. All crushed into the dirt by both natural and man-made disasters, political mishandling, open revolt, quiet mutinies, abdication of royal responsibilities, alien invasions from beyond the waves. It’s truly apocalyptic in scale and it laid the foundations for later collapses just as readily as the aftermath of WW1 led into WW2.
Reading it also made me mad at all of the pundits saying that even with the madness of the current political world right now, all of the big nations around the world are simply too strong and powerful to succumb to any kind of collapse and that everything is going to be fine, that we should sit back and wait. Because they are unknowingly echoing that every single group of “learned” commentators have said about every culture that went on to fall into the dust piles of history.